How to Recognize the Warning Signs of Gambling Problems


Gambling involves placing a bet on an event that is not guaranteed to happen. It may be illegal in some jurisdictions and carries risk of financial loss or other negative consequences. It is not uncommon for people to develop gambling problems, and it is important to understand how to recognize the warning signs.

People gamble for many reasons, including: a desire to make money, an urge to try and recoup losses, a social component (gambling can bring people together), a way to relieve boredom, a coping mechanism during stress, or as a form of escape from life’s challenges. Although these factors differ among individuals, they all contribute to the development of problematic gambling behaviours.

One of the most common features of problem gambling is that people often believe they can recover their previous losses by winning again. This is because the brain produces a feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine, when you experience a win. This is a normal part of the learning process when you practise a skill such as shooting basketballs into a net, but it becomes problematic when a person keeps throwing the dice or pulling the lever of a slot machine on impulse to get that kick of dopamine, even though they are losing.

Another common factor is the overestimation of probability. This occurs when the individual remembers examples of previous lucky events, such as a string of wins in a game of poker or an early big win on the lottery. This skews the individual’s perception of the likelihood of a future win, so they continue to gamble.

In addition, people are also more sensitive to losses than they are to gains of equal value. This is why people will invest time and effort to try and ‘win back’ a previous loss rather than simply moving on from that outcome. This can cause a vicious cycle where the person continues to gamble in an attempt to make up for past losses, which can lead to more and more damage.

There are a number of other features that can contribute to an individual becoming addicted to gambling, including the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of an event occurring, the boredom susceptibility, the use of escape coping, and the impulsivity. These factors can create an environment where a person can easily become trapped in the cycle of losing more and more, which leads to problems with finances, relationships, and their overall health.

Over the last two decades, the understanding of gambling has undergone a profound change. Once viewed as a psychiatric disorder, pathological gambling has now been recognized as an addiction in its own right. This shift is analogous to the changes in the psychiatric understanding of alcoholism. However, there is still a lack of agreed-on nomenclature when discussing gambling, as research scientists, psychiatrists, other treatment care clinicians, and others tend to frame the issue differently depending on their disciplinary training, expertise, or special interests. This is a major challenge that must be addressed in order to ensure accurate communication of research and intervention efforts in the field.

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